Iran is a land of recurrence. In the Middle East, it is a unique country. In 1905, Iran was the first country in the region where a revolution for democracy and freedom, the constitutional revolution, took place. Yet, in the aftermath of that revolution, we Iranians came to face a new breed of dictatorship.
Following the ensuing era of suppression and oppression, we again revolted and we were again repressed. In 1953, through a coup d’etat orchestrated by the United States, the shah deposed our elected prime minister and champion of nationalising the country’s oil industry, and we lost the greatest opportunity to become versed in democracy. The coup d’etat was followed by a new era of repression and executions. And, of course, in the years that followed we had other uprisings, which were also quashed.
Soon, the best and the brightest of our university students joined opposition groups and guerrilla factions, and many were executed. Then we arrived at the 1979 Islamic revolution. We knew what we didn’t want, but we didn’t know what we did want. During the shah’s regime, we didn’t suffer severe economic issues – we simply wanted freedom.
We therefore revolted and changed the regime. But freedom was just a word to us, a slogan that we liked. We had no real concept of freedom. Soon, hundreds of political parties proclaimed their existence and, because we did not fully comprehend democracy, each was quick to accuse the other of affiliations with foreign governments. None of these political factions had a plan for the future. In tandem, hundreds of politically oriented magazines and newspapers were founded, each of which would publish articles in opposition to another publication or political party. It all escalated to the point at which opportunists grabbed control of power. And it all became what it all became.
Today, history is again repeating itself in Iran. My generation, all of whom are over 50, have witnessed our dreams falling by the wayside one by one. Now, the next generation bravely demonstrates in the streets. They are beaten up, arrested and tortured, and, when they are killed during police attacks, the government does not easily release their bodies to their families, who are often banned from holding funerals for their children.
The problem we Iranians have is that there has always been a gap, a great divide, between our generations. The new generation does not learn from the bitter experiences of the older generation and only winds up repeating them.
Perhaps the reason for this repetition is the severe censorship that has taken root in Iran. To erase people’s memories of their history, each regime that has come to power has immediately set out to change the history books taught in schools and universities. They have banned previously published books from being reprinted and have gone as far as changing the names of streets that the previous regime had named after notable people and important events. Perhaps the reason for this repetition is that independent journals and newspapers have been banned and the older generation cannot convey its own experiences to the next generation.
Perhaps the reason for this repetition is that Iranians read very little – despite a population of more than 70 million, the print run of books published in Iran by independent publishers has dwindled to 700 copies. We seem to have regressed to pre-Gutenberg times. Perhaps the reason for this repetition is that we cling to our past and rarely look to the future. We are forever proud of our glorious ancient history and are satisfied by it. We have adopted only a thin veneer of modernity. We drive the latest models of Mercedes and BMWs down our avenues. We use postmodern architectural designs in the construction of our homes, shopping centres and boutiques. Yet many of us still have a culture of religious zeal and fanaticism in our blood. And perhaps the reason for this repetition is also that Iran has not experienced a renaissance.
Today, another movement is under way in Iran. The country’s riot police, armed with the most modern paraphernalia purchased from European countries, stifle and subdue Iranian protesters. With the aid of one of the most advanced kinds of software, also bought from the west, thousands of websites and weblogs are filtered. Internet speed has been deliberately reduced, and as a result news is spread mostly by word of mouth in a country that boasts the greatest number of blogs in the Middle East. Iranian literature, which despite censorship had flourished during the 1980s and 1990s, has been afflicted by asphyxiation and hopelessness during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because censorship is being practised in a most senseless and severe fashion.
Iran has the potential of being one of the wealthiest and most cultured countries. But today, according to government statistics, more than half its population lives below the poverty level, and I suspect the actual figure is even greater than this.
Consequently, Iranians are angry. For almost 30 years, political, social, and economic pressures have been imposed on them. They have not even had the freedom to choose their own manner of dress. Many work two shifts a day to earn a pittance for their family to get by on. It is no surprise that they now demonstrate in the streets. The problem, however, is that they lack an earnest leader, something they have always needed. Most of those who could, under these circumstances, lead this movement have been assassinated or crushed in solitary confinement, or have grown old in isolation in the corner of their homes. It is for these reasons that I believe history in Iran will again repeat itself. Let us assume that the Iranian people succeed in changing or reforming the current regime – what then? What do we want to do next? And there is no answer to this question.
These nights Iranians shout “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and “Death to the dictator” from their rooftops. These are the same phrases repeated on the nights of the revolution against the shah’s rule. However, a new and encouraging twist in this new uprising, whether it succeeds or is again quashed, is that in street demonstrations they walk in silence. There is no sign of those clenched fists and shouts of death to this and that. And in this silence lies a secret, which at some time in the future Iran, with all its paradoxes, will reveal to the world.
Shahriar Mandanipour, an iranian novelist and writer.